Get Ready for Blackburn Challenge 2012!

By Vladimir Brezina

The other day I looked at the calendar and suddenly realized that there are barely three months left: it’s high time to get into shape, and get the kayaks shipshape, for this year’s Blackburn Challenge!

The Blackburn Challenge, organized by the Cape Ann Rowing Club, is a ~20-mile open water race around Cape Ann, the rocky cape that projects into the Atlantic Ocean north of Boston, Massachusetts. It’s a well known and well established event—last year was the 25th running of the race (and there was one participant who had been in all 25 of them!). The fun part is that the race is open to “all seaworthy oar or paddle powered craft. Classes include men’s and women’s Banks dories, fixed seat singles, doubles, multi-oars with cox, multi-oars without cox, sliding seat singles & doubles, single & double touring kayaks, single & double racing kayaks, surf skis, and outrigger canoes.” Even, in the last couple of years, paddleboards! So it’s quite a colorful flotilla out there on the ocean during the race!

Johna and I have raced in the Blackburn Challenge in 2010 and 2011, and we will be going again this year. The 2012 Challenge is on Saturday, July 14th. If that sort of thing appeals to you, you should certainly think about going too!

Here is the course of the Blackburn Challenge in Google Earth and plotted on a marine chart. The exact course, though, is up to you to decide on given the day’s conditions—the only requirements are to check in at one point half-way round (after which “we don’t care how you get back”), and then of course at the end!

(click on the chart to expand)

The course is (almost) a circumnavigation of Cape Ann—for the first two or three miles down the winding Annisquam River, and then past a series of rocky points around the cape, ending in Gloucester Harbor. There is some assistance from tidal current, especially in the Annisquam River. After that, “conditions can vary dramatically throughout the day. Occasionally the water can be very rough, with strong winds and high waves.” The 2006 race was run in thick fog (after which, provision was made for alternative courses to be used in fog or high winds, but I don’t think they’ve been needed yet). In the past two years, conditions have been fairly placid—but even then, as we rounded some of the points we were treated to the sight and sound of surf crashing dramatically on the rocks, just to show what could be!

How long does it take to complete the course? Here are the 2011 results. The fastest boat—a sliding seat racing double—finished in 2 hours, 26 minutes, and 21 seconds. The fastest single “high performance” kayak—a surf ski—took 2:34:24, the fastest single “standard” sea kayak 3:21:08. The slowest of the 245 boats to finish, actually a paddleboard, took 7:32:25. So if you paddle a sea kayak reasonably fast, you won’t be last!

If you are considering taking part, don’t be put off either by the story of the man for whom the race is named. From the Blackburn Challenge website:

The event both celebrates and helps to keep alive the story of Howard Blackburn’s desperate mid-winter 1883 rowing of a small fishing dory from the Burgeo Bank fishing grounds to refuge on the south coast of Newfoundland. Blackburn and his dorymate Thomas Welch had become separated from the Gloucester fishing schooner Grace L. Fears during a sudden squall and found themselves nearly sixty miles from the nearest land. Over the course of the ensuing five-day ordeal, Welch would give up and succumb to a merciful death, whereas Blackburn would allow his bare hands to freeze to the shape of the oars, and row until he reached land.

Though Blackburn survived he ultimately suffered the loss of most of his fingers and toes due to frostbite. In spite of his handicap, he later went on to twice sail solo across the Atlantic Ocean, earning himself the title “The Fingerless Navigator”.

The story is told in much more (horrific) detail here.

Here are a few photos from the 2011 Blackburn Challenge:

Putting into the Annisquam River for the paddle, or row, to the starting line

The stand-up (and some lying-down!) paddleboarders are already off, with an hour's head start

Johna summons up her aggressive instincts---she can be very competitive!

At the start line... the outrigger canoes start

Now it's the sea kayaks' turn!

And now, sorry!—no photos for the next four hours. But here’s a representative photo, taken from land by David Cox during the 2010 Challenge, from the blog GoodMorningGloucester.

The motley flotilla on the ocean

And here is a nice selection of David Cox’s photos from the 2011 Challenge.

Now my race is done…

Beach at the finish line in Gloucester Harbor

Someone is admiring my boat! (Or else wondering how such a thing could ever stay afloat...)

Welcome to each finisher

A rowboat finishes

On the right out in the water is...

… Gloucester’s famous Greasy Pole.

Johna crosses the finish line...

... and paddles up to the beach

The beach is packed with all kinds of human-powered craft

... and a festive crowd

Finally the awards ceremony. Johna wins a medal---second in the women's single sea kayak class!

More photos from the 2011 Blackburn Challenge, and from the other days of our 2011 New England kayaking vacation, are here.

13 responses to “Get Ready for Blackburn Challenge 2012!

  1. What a cool event. Reading about it, I couldn’t help wondering . . . is that a course that could be swimmable?
    And congrats to Johna on her strong finish!


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, Janet! In all honesty, I have to say that the gal who beat me did so by more than a half hour–I think she was the sole serious racer in our group.

      As to whether the course is swimmable, I’ll let Vlad weigh in with his thoughts, but any course that’s kayakable is in theory swimmable, no? It’s not that long, though as with any open-water race, there’s always the risk of unexpected conditions….


    • Hi, Janet!

      It seems to me that it would be quite swimmable, but not necessarily a course that would naturally suggest itself for swimming. It didn’t occur to me until you asked the question. I mean, why that particular course rather than one of a hundred other possibilities?

      If you mean, would the Blackburn Challenge course organizers allow swimmers to take part in the existing event?—human-powered, after all!—that might be fun! But probably a logistical nightmare…

      The crossing to Block Island, on the other hand… I wonder if anyone has swum that (probably, I would guess) and if there has been any kind of organized event?


    • Actually, the Block Island crossing has been swum, in 2005 by Jim Bayles. He thought he was the first, but as he mentions in his writeup he subsequently discovered that years previously there had been some kind of organized event in which at least two swimmers made it across. So that swim is certainly doable!


      • Thanks for the info! The Block Island crossing does look like an interesting one, and very pretty as well. Cool to know some history on it. I couldn’t get the above link to work, but I did find some info on Jim Bayle’s swim here.

        I don’t assume that every course that one can kayak would be swimmable–there can be currents that too strong for anyone to swim against that a kayak can navigate. I guess I asked about whether this route was because it looked like a fun mix of challenges,. But I didn’t mean as part of the Blackburn event–that seems like a day just for paddlers! And it would indeed multiply the logistical difficulties of the day to add swimmers to the mix.

        I’m going to be part of a swim late this summer in Cape Cod Bay, and I’ve been looking at your blog posts from the area (including your latest one) for inspiration and to get a feel for what the area will be like. So many beautiful places to explore from the water!


        • Thanks for the new link on Jim Bayles, Janet! Looks like the old link is gone, which is too bad, because that was quite a detailed writeup of his swim.

          In terms of currents, the Blackburn Challenge route is definitely swimmable. The only place where there is strong current is in the Annisquam River, and you would presumably time the swim so as to be going with the current at that point.

          Cape Cod Bay in the late summer: I would guess warm (maybe even too warm!) water, and in terms of scenery possibly a bit monotonous from a swimmer’s vantage point: just open water, or endless low beach if going along shore… not like swimming round Manhattan! ;-)


  2. Sounds like a lot of fun! Congratulations to Johna! And all the best to you both for the 2012 challenge!


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